[TIFF 2018] REVIEW: ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is a simple, energetic farewell to Robert Redford

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford star in  The Old Man and the Gun , directed by David Lowery.

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford star in The Old Man and the Gun, directed by David Lowery.

A lot of people in the film business will tell you about the itinerant nature of the work, jumping from job to job. You finish one film or TV show, only to be out looking for a new gig, being judged less on your whole resumé than on what you did most recently. And of course, some productions will be runaway hits, and others will crash and burn.

While it may sound far-fetched, there are certain parallels between this pattern and that of a career criminal: constantly on the move, bouncing between success and failure. The outcomes couldn’t be more different, but it’s worth wondering whether there’s a similar, maddening sense of uncertainty in both realms.

Robert Redford has suggested that his latest film, The Old Man and the Gun, will be his last. So it’s a curious coincidence (or maybe not so coincidental) that he chose to play a bank robber in his 70s, with a decades-long history of successful heists, embarrassing captures and daring prison escapes. Is Redford implying that his career has been just as full of ups and downs as the real-life criminal Forrest Tucker, whose life inspired the film? Or is it just Redford’s tip of the hat to the other rogues he’s played, in movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting?

Whatever the motivation, there’s no doubt that the new movie, from David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story) is a fine way for Redford to make his exit (if that is indeed the case). The Old Man and the Gun is a smooth, lively, and warm experience; it doesn’t break new ground, but proves that even in 2018, you don’t need a lot of flash or a lame gimmick to hold an audience’s attention. All it takes is some confident filmmaking, some chemistry between the stars, and a “so crazy it must be true” story.

Casey Affleck as Detective John Hunt.

Casey Affleck as Detective John Hunt.

Forrest Tucker’s story certainly meets that criterion. Tucker’s crimes dated back to when he was 15, in 1936. Since then, he broke out of captivity 16 times and committed dozens of robberies, with a preference for small-town banks. When the film introduces him, Tucker is in his seventies, and his M.O. is well-defined. He conducts surveillance on a target for days or weeks, and on the chosen day, enters the bank in a sharp suit and a false mustache. He’s unfailingly polite with the staff, and doesn’t pull out his gun, preferring to flash it only once. Money in hand, he takes off, and uses a series of cars to mask his getaway. Clean, simple, and the essence of the phrase “nobody gets hurt”.

This method endears us to Tucker, making him into an anti-hero whose crimes only harm the institutions he robs. But it doesn’t give Tucker a reprieve in real life, and soon a detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is on the case. Hunt ties Tucker to a string of robberies over the course of several months in 1981, and dubs the team Tucker works with the Over-the-Hill Gang (Danny Glover and Tom Waits).

Following one successful heist, Tucker crosses paths with a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who’s having car trouble. In the spirit of transparency, Tucker admits his true occupation to Jewel not long afterwards, though Jewel doesn’t really believe him. And though they don’t really put a label on their relationship, it’s lovely to watch Redford and Spacek together. The dialogue in their scenes sparkles with a classic-movie sort of glitter, and Lowery does the right thing by capturing these moments simply, confident his cast can manage on their own.

Tom Waits as Tucker’s associate, Waller.

Tom Waits as Tucker’s associate, Waller.

If anything, that might be the biggest knock against the movie: it’s so straightforward and by-the-book that some viewers may find there’s no fresh entertainment to be had. Perhaps the screenplay might have benefitted from examining Tucker’s motivations a bit more; as it is, we’re only told that stealing things and escaping from prison are the only things that make Tucker happy. What really drove him to pursue the lifestyle for so long? As far as the movie is concerned, it’s all coded in Redford’s knowing grin and trademark eyes.

This is where the source material for the movie, a 2003 New Yorker article by David Grann, might have helped more. Grann details more of the real-life Tucker’s regrets, like his remorse for not being a better father, or for not being “smart in the ways of life”. The film also omits an intriguing chapter in Tucker’s life, when he got out of prison in 1993 and tried to cement his status as a legendary American outlaw. His plan was to produce a Hollywood movie about himself, which he tried pitching to Clint Eastwood and others with no success. Tucker eventually died in prison in 2004, long before Redford, Lowery and their team began working on the project.

As illuminating as it might have been, perhaps these elements of Tucker’s story would only have distracted from the experience. Maybe it’s enough to enjoy Redford and Spacek’s banter, and the fun of Affleck’s bewilderment as the Over-the-Hill gang pulls off heist after heist. The irony of Tucker’s final project is that it will be Redford whose legacy will shine the brightest in the wake of The Old Man and the Gun, a fitting reminder of the old “crime doesn’t pay” adage.

The Old Man and the Gun gets three and a half stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • It’s always fun to see Tom Waits in movies – it’s hard to predict when he’ll pop up, but a project never loses by including him.

  • I’m curious to know which of Redford’s old projects yielded the quick shot that Lowery uses for the escape montage.